"I thought I was a guest in this house?" Don groaned as he scrubbed a pot over the kitchen sink. "How come I'm doing dishes?"
"You ate and you didn't cook," Charlie pointed out as he dried the plate his brother handed him. "You know the drill – that means you clean."
Alan smiled over the top of his newspaper at his two sons as they bickered over the dishes. "Just like old times," he chuckled quietly. "Donny, you're not a guest in this house – you're family."
"Meaning I have to do the dishes," the agent grumbled.
"Meaning you belong here, whenever you need support or just want company."
"And that you have to do the dishes," Charlie sing-songed.
"That's not fair," Don grumbled, but he was grinning ear to ear.
"If you don't want to clean, then get here early enough to cook," Alan suggested.
"Dad!" Charlie gasped through a fit of laughter. "Are you trying to kill us all?" His amusement quickly faded as his older brother splashed him with dishwater. "Hey! Watch it!"
"Just trying to help keep that hair of yours in peak condition," Don smiled innocently. "I know it's what drives the ladies wild."
"Never," the agent vowed with a twinkle in his eye. "Might want to check your shampoo bottle, though."
"Are you two planning on finishing tonight?" Alan sighed. "Because I thought we were going to watch that old baseball flick Don loves so much."
The two brothers rolled their eyes, but made short work of the remaining dishes and followed their father into the living room. Don started to grab the DVD and queue up the movie, but his neck and shoulders spasmed, freezing him in place while he slowly flexed the muscles.
"I'll get it set up," Charlie told him as he grabbed his brother's elbow and steered him to the couch, gently pushing him to sit on the cushions. "You keep working on that and just relax."
"Little brothers have got to be good for something, right?" the younger man said with a wink.
"Can I do something to help?" Alan inquired as he watched Don roll his shoulders and stretch his neck.
"I'm fine. It's already starting to go away." He sighed and wearily lay back on the couch, carefully angling himself toward the television. "I guess that's why they won't let me in the field yet."
"I imagine it would be pretty bad if one of those spasms hit while you were pursuing a suspect," Charlie commented as he sank into his chair and started the movie. "You just have to be patient, you know. You'll be back in fighting shape soon."
"Not soon enough," the agent muttered. "Two weeks of desk duty has turned into four. If I don't get cleared this time, I think I'm going to go stir crazy."
"Sorry," he apologized to his father. "But sometimes it seems like I'll never really make it back." He saw the older man's look and quickly held up a hand. "I know, I know – I have to stay positive. I really am trying, Dad."
"I know," Alan nodded. "And I know how hard it is. But you're doing so well with your recovery. Don't let something like negative thinking ruin it, okay?"
"I won't," Don assured him. "I promise."
"Hey, you two," Charlie snapped playfully. "I thought we were watching a movie."
They all grew silent as they sat in the flickering light of the television screen, watching but not really seeing the movie. They'd fallen into an evening tradition of dinner followed by some late night activity so that they could stumble to their beds and fall asleep, too exhausted to be bothered by any nightmare that might crop up. Don was well enough that he could manage – albeit awkwardly – by himself at his apartment, but insisted on staying at Charlie's because he'd become so dependent on their routine.
The movie finally ended and Charlie groggily sat up and turned off the television, plunging them into near complete darkness. "That was a good movie," he yawned.
"One of the classics," Don agreed. He waited for his father to make a comment, frowning when he was met by silence. "Dad?"
"Right here, Donny."
"I don't think any of us are," Alan advised him. "We've been going to those therapy sessions for how long? Three weeks now? And at the end of every session we all talk about how much progress we've made."
"We have, though," Charlie argued. "Before we started I could barely sleep at all. Now I get a few good hours on a consistent basis."
"But only because you stay up late enough that you're too exhausted not to sleep. We've simply replaced one problem with another."
"What do you suggest, Dad?" Don inquired. "If the therapy isn't working-"
"I didn't say that," the older man replied. "I think it's working quite well, but we're too worried that when we try to go to sleep at a normal hour we'll find out we're wrong."
"That makes sense," Charlie agreed. "So tomorrow night we should eat dinner, skip any other plans and go straight to bed?"
"That's the only way we'll know for sure," Alan said.
"I guess it won't hurt to try," Don mused.
"Then we have a plan," his father stated. "Let's finish up our zombie routine tonight and tomorrow night we'll see if we can manage that next step."
'Tomorrow night' brought a very quiet, uncomfortable dinner as each man wondered what the night would bring. Don was terrified that they were about to find out the therapy wasn't helping and that he might very well have to kiss his career as a field agent goodbye. He ate about a third of his food and waited for his brother and father to finish, not surprised when they left the same amount of food on their plates, too. Alan scraped their dishes clean and rinsed them in the sink, telling his sons that they would be fine to sit overnight.
"Off to bed we go," Charlie stated with a nervous chuckle.
The three men slowly walked to the staircase and began the climb to the second floor, Don leading the way as usual so that his father and brother could catch him if he stumbled. As they reached the upstairs hallway, he eyed his room as if it were a snake waiting to strike. Glancing over his shoulder, Don wasn't surprised to see looks of trepidation on their faces as well. "So, good night, I guess."
"Good night," Charlie swallowed nervously.
"You know what?" Alan spoke, his voice loud and unnatural in the silence of the hallway. "We're up here to try this, but we don't have to try this alone. We are taking things one step at a time, right?"
"Right," Don nodded. "So, whose room are we crashing in?"
"Dad's got the biggest bed," Charlie stated.
"Fine with me," their father smiled. "Let's get ready for bed and meet in my room."
Don grabbed the bathroom first and went about his pre-bedtime routine, then slipped into his room and changed into an old FBI tee. He padded down the hall and into his father's room, smiling as he saw his father propped against the center of the head board, Charlie lying curled up on his right. Alan patted the open spot on his left and Don happily eased himself onto the mattress. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew it wasn't normal for a grown man to be sharing a bed with his father and adult brother, but then he reminded himself nothing about the ordeal they'd lived through was normal.
"Charlie's already out," Alan whispered to him.
"That's great," Don smiled.
"Your turn, Donny." Alan gently pushed on his oldest son's shoulder until the agent was lying down, his head against his father's hip. He rested a hand on top of Don's head, running his fingers though the short, dark strands in a hypnotic rhythm.
"G'night, Dad," Don whispered as he concentrated on his father's touch. He soon drifted off into a dreamless sleep and didn't notice when – only a few moments later – the hand in his hair stilled as his father followed his sons into a deep slumber.
Over the next few days the Eppes continued to push their recovery, one step at a time. They eventually started sleeping through the night in their own rooms and then started to cut back on their time together in the evening. The true test came when – after finishing dinner – Don made an announcement.
"I guess I should head back to my apartment." He spoke casually and even forced a little yawn, but the looks he received from his family were anything but calm.
"Are you sure about this, Donny?" he father asked as he leaned forward and studied his oldest son. "You don't have to force anything, you know."
"I think it really is time to face it," the agent replied. "Don't get me wrong – I've loved spending time with you two lately, but I want my life to go back to normal."
"Oh," Charlie whispered. "Normal."
Seeing the disappointment on his little brother's face, Don reached out and patted his shoulder. "Well, not just like it was before. I'm definitely planning on spending more time over here than I used to."
"Good," the professor smiled.
"But I do need to get back to my apartment and then back into the field – back to who I am."
"If you're sure you're ready," Alan agreed. "I'm behind you one hundred percent."
"Thanks," Don said, glancing at Charlie. "What about you, Buddy? Are you okay with that?"
"If that's what you need, then yeah."
"Thanks." It dawned on the agent that maybe his family wasn't over their trauma. "Wait – are you both okay with this? I don't have to if you want me to stay."
"The last part of our recovery is to see you back to normal," his father told him. "So you need to take this step for all of us."
"No pressure, huh?" Don quietly joked.
Alan reached out and covered his oldest son's hand with his and squeezed. "No pressure at all, Donny. I mean that."
"Still," the agent shrugged. "I won't let you down."
"You never have, son. Not even once."
Later that night as he lay in his bed waiting for sleep to come, Don wondered if he'd lied to his father. He was so tired and the room was so warm, dark and inviting, but he still couldn't seem to sleep. Thoughts of what might crop up in his dreams kept his nerves on edge and knowing that his family wasn't there if he needed them only heightened his anxiety.
They're a phone call away, he reminded himself. All you have to do is call and they'll break every traffic law in the city to get here as fast as they can. He took a deep breath and swore to himself that he wouldn't do that to his family – that he would be strong for them no matter what it took.
Feeling a little more confident, Don forced the tension to flow from his body and let himself slide off to sleep…
He was back in the barn, hanging by his wrists, only… it didn't hurt. Instead of a sharp biting pain, there was a warm solid grip that was somehow supporting his whole body so that his arms and shoulders weren't under any strain. He relaxed into he comforting feeling but was caught off guard as Doug appeared in front of him, smiling and laughing as he raised his arm – hose in hand – to land a blow across his stomach. As his captor's arm swung down, Don closed his eyes and braced himself for the pain that would follow, only… it never came.
"He'll never hurt you again," Charlie's voice floated next to his ear. The agent opened his eyes and found his little brother blocking his view of Doug and acting as a barrier that his attacker couldn't penetrate. "He'll never hurt any of us again."
Don smiled and relaxed as the presence that had been supporting his body materialized into his father, who hugged him from behind while Charlie embraced him from the front. "We've got you, Donny."
Don's eyes cracked open and he immediately winced against the sunlight pouring through his bedroom window. I slept through the night, he thought happily. In my own apartment, in my own bed – I made it through the night!
He thought about calling his brother and father to let them know but a huge yawn convinced him to grab a few more winks while he was already comfortable. He sighed sleepily and rolled over in bed, letting his eyes close again. This time sleep came quickly and he didn't resist it at all, knowing that the nightmares of this ordeal would never visit him again.